Forming Subjects: Documentation and Paperwork from the Early Modern to Modern Worlds

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 9:30 AM
Grant Park Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Arthur Mitchell Fraas, University of Pennsylvania
This paper examines the role of a particular group of quotidian material texts in shaping the lives of non-elite citizens/subjects across the global eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whether in eighteenth-century Japan, the nineteenth-century American West, or the twentieth-century global bureaucratic order, the production and use of documents at scale by printing, hybrid handwritten forms, mimeography, or other means have been essential to the relationship between state actors and their claimed constituents. Bibliographers and intellectual historians alike have done heroic work carefully recording and indexing early "books" from one location or another, subsequently deploying this evidence to make arguments about social, political, and economic change. However, scholars have paid comparatively less attention to the explosion of legal printing, government forms, and official notices in the same periods. These items are practically challenging; so commonplace as to be taken for granted but rarely preserved. Yet, to a remarkable degree, the first productions of printing presses around the world have often been government documents, legal forms, or tax slips. This paper argues that to a large number of historical actors, the textual objects encountered most and which played the most immediate role in everyday life were not "books" as we think of them, but what we broadly categorize as “ephemera.” For example, what does it mean that the average resident of 18th century Calcutta experienced English textual production through printed and manuscript forms, decrees, and summonses rather than the books so carefully recorded in bibliographies? How do we approach the massive production of firmans, grants, and orders in manuscript throughout the Persian and Arabic world before and after the widespread introduction of printing? In looking to ephemeral government printing to understand the relationship of state and subject, this paper highlights concurrent trends in documentation and governmentality across borders and national trajectories.